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The Gretchen Question

by on 24 September 2022

Arctic Adventures

The Gretchen Question

by Melly Still and Max Barton

Fuel Theatre at the Master Shipwright’s House, Deptford until 2nd October

Review by Patrick Shorrock

The Gretchen Question is a wonderful display of theatrical virtuosity in a glorious setting (the Master Shipwright’s House, which is one of the few remaining parts of Deptford’s former royal dockyard, founded by Henry VIII in 1513).  Whether Melly Still’s and Max Barton’s piece is a viable play or not is, perhaps, more open to question.  But it certainly makes for a stimulating and enjoyable evening in the specific site for which it was devised.  However, punters are strongly advised to wrap up as warm as possible.  Sitting down beside the River Thames for 90 minutes without an interval on a late September evening is a decidedly chilly experience, but well worth the trip. 

Three somewhat clichéd situations are interwoven.   A colonialist expedition to the Arctic by the Royal Society returns to 18th Century London with a mysterious potential source of new energy to fuel the industrial revolution’s need to generate power.  In their eagerness to find out how this natural resource can be exploited and where it comes from, these wanabee scientists evade, in suitably patriarchal fashion, the awkward questions posed by Lauren Moakes’s Gretchen.  In the present day, influencer and vacuous narcissist Masie (hilariously, and finally poignantly, played by Yohanna Ephrem) arrives in the Arctic to pose in front of snowscapes for livestreams that promote some nebulous but clearly malevolent organisation.  Meanwhile, Tamaira Hesson’s performance poet Lulit is repeatedly drawn to an ice rink, the site of her collapse the previous night, as she tries to find out what is wrong with her.  Is it the result of a mosquito bite?  Does she just need anti-depressants?  Or is it something more alarming?

Gretchen Questions – named after the heroine of Goethe’s Faust – are apparently a thing in Germany.  They are questions that go to the heart of the matter but are difficult to answer.  The play is billed as an invitation to inquire what the future holds for us, while drawing from the history of climate change.  To be honest, the questions that the play asks do seem rather predictable.  How to respond to the effect of technological innovation and the exploitation of natural resources on indigenous people and other species?  What is the point of the innovations anyway if they damage the earth and corrupt the innovators?  This predictability does not make the questions any easier to answer, although it does produce a certain feeling of disappointment.  To be fair, the writing does indicate some awareness of the inadequacy of its characters’ responses, as well of that of its audience.  (There is some enjoyably clever intertextuality including weaving some audience participation into one of the stories in wonderfully unexpected way.)  And theatre is, after all, at its most effective, not when it attempts to offer solutions, but when it analyses problems and brings undiscovered aspects of human experience to life. 

Even if the content of the stories can be a little obvious, their depiction, by some of theatre’s finest talents, certainly isn’t.  They are fleetly told and interestingly developed.  Melly Still’s direction has a thrilling momentum, as it juggles the multiple storylines and ideas in a way that feels hugely exhilarating, even if, by the end, it becomes somewhat exhausting.  The music by Second Body (Max Barton and Jethro Cooke) and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting are so much a part of the performance that you often barely notice them, although they strongly contribute to the mesmerising effect.  E.M. Parry’s designs ensure that everything is in the right place while making the most of the magical setting with the trees in the Master Shipwright’s garden, the view of the river and the lights of Canary Wharf twinkling in the moonlight.

Patrick Shorrock, September 2022

Photography by Helen Murray

From → Drama, Uncategorized

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